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White House Press Conference

Aired March 18, 2003 - 12:22   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go immediately to the White House, the Press Secretary Ari Fleischer speaking.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... on the importance of good U.S.-China relations for the advancement of bilateral interests in international peace and stability. The presidents shared views on Iraq and North Korea. President Bush express appreciation for Beijing's efforts to help resolve the North Korean issue peacefully. President Bush also reiterated his administration's commitment to a one-China policy.

The president then had his intelligence briefing, FBI briefing, had additional meetings, and has no public events on his schedule today.

I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can we get your reaction to some of the comments that have been coming from the Hill, Senator Daschle saying that he's, quote, "saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are now forced to war."

FLEISCHER: Of course members of Congress, including Senator Daschle, are well within their rights to express their opinions. If you take a look at what Senator Daschle has said about the inevitability of using force in 1998, and if you take a look at what Senator Daschle said about the importance of raising the rhetoric to a higher level and not politicizing the rhetoric, I find his statement to be inconsistent, but perhaps he has a better explanation.

QUESTION: But do you believe he is politicizing this, that no one has a right at this time to criticize the president?

FLEISCHER: No, I just said the opposite, rights of every member of Congress to say what they think, to express their opinions. He certainly is well within his rights to express his opinions. It just strikes me as inconsistent with previously things he has said.

QUESTION: Can I also ask you about something Senator John McCain said on the floor this morning, that he would not support any tax cuts or spending increases not related to improving the nation's defenses?

The president hasn't yet talked about cost at all with the American people. Again, we're standing on the brink and he's still proposing a massive tax cut. At what point is he going to explain to people what this is going to cost the country in terms of the economy?

FLEISCHER: Well, Congress is just beginning the whole process of reviewing the budget, and although this will become a part of that in the event that it does lead to hostilities, the administration would send up a supplemental appropriation bill to the Congress. And so, Congress will then have at its disposal all the relevant facts and figures to make the determinations for their budget issues as the year proceeds.

In all cases the president, as he has stressed repeatedly, is focused on and urges Congress to continue to focus on domestic needs, whether there is war or whether there is peace. And those domestic needs include providing economic growth so that, if there is war, when the war is over, our military has jobs to come home to, and a part of that is passing the economic package.

QUESTION: President Putin condemned the military action in Iraq and spoke of it possibly hurting relations.

QUESTION: At the same time, the Russian parliament pulled down a vote on the nuclear arms treaty. China's condemning the president's march to war.

Did either one of these divisions come up in his conversations? Did he try to explain why he's doing what he's doing?

FLEISCHER: No, the two openly acknowledged that they don't see eye-to-eye on whether or not force should be used to disarm Saddam Hussein. They agree about the threats in the region. But it's no secret that they don't see eye-to-eye on whether the use of force is a required remedy to make Saddam Hussein disarm.

But the two of them, in the phone call, did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russian relations and both expressed confidence that would indeed happen.

QUESTION: Is Russia one of the countries the president was referring to when he said: These countries share our belief about the threat with Iraq, but they don't share our resolve.

FLEISCHER: The president didn't specifically define who he was referring to, so I wouldn't define it for him.

QUESTION: When the president speaks to the nation at the beginning of hostilities, will he then, for the first time, talk about what he expects the conflict to cost in terms of lives and in terms of dollars?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to be in the business of predicting future presidential remarks. If and when it gets to that point, the president would indicate something himself. I wouldn't predict every circumstance.

QUESTION: Don't you think that the president will want to give the American public some indication? All we get...

FLEISCHER: I'm not saying he wouldn't. I'm just saying it's not my place today to do it for him.


QUESTION: ... supplemental. People who were here from Congress yesterday said that they estimated it would be $80 to $90 billion. But there's not a word out of here, there's not a word from the president.

FLEISCHER: No, there was no discussion in the meetings with members of Congress yesterday, none, about the level of a supplemental.

QUESTION: What about American lives? We don't hear about that yet either.

FLEISCHER: Again, the president has said that he hopes that this can be done peacefully. If there are lives lost, he believes the American people understand the risks, the sacrifices people are prepared to make if it is necessary to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein. I think people understand that.

This has been a very serious run-up to what may become war. And the American people have heard and understand the reality and the gravity of the situation. And I think they understand that.

QUESTION: Is there any doubt that there's going to be war?

QUESTION: I pick up on that, what you said. Does it bother the president that most of the world is against this war and half of America? And I have a follow-up.

FLEISCHER: This is an issue where you and I will never agree when you state your premise about what the people think.


QUESTION: ... you and I. This is a very legitimate question.

FLEISCHER: I think there is a lot of public polling that you can see out there. The recent poll from your neighbor to the right, ABC News, showed that 79 percent of the American people think that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States. I've heard you say on many occasions, most Americans don't think he's a threat to the United States.

So I understand your strong opinions clearly. I'm not sure the American people agree with you.


QUESTION: ... that's a very personal attack. I said the war, are they in favor...

FLEISCHER: I thought it was an accurate observation. QUESTION: Are you saying 79 percent of the American people are for this war?

FLEISCHER: What I just said to you is that, according to that ABC poll, 79 percent of the American people think that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States.

QUESTION: That isn't what I asked you.

FLEISCHER: And in terms of support for a war, again, talking about the public polls, I saw one this morning in USA Today that put that figure at 66 percent, if I recall.

QUESTION: And one other question, which is, can the president present any show-and-tell evidence of ties to Al Qaida with Saddam and also nuclear potential immediately or imminently?

FLEISCHER: You heard what Secretary Powell talked about when he went to the United Nations and has reiterated on a regular basis since then, as well as others in the administration about the presence in Baghdad of Al Qaida operatives, about the involvement of Al Qaida trained in Iraq involved in the assassination of AID worker Foley in Jordan. So this has been something that has been discussed very publicly.


QUESTION: ... CIA and FBI have never said that, backed that up.

FLEISCHER: Don't think it would have been said if it hadn't have been supported by them.

QUESTION: Will U.S. troops enter Iraq no matter what at this point? In other words, even if Saddam Hussein some off chance takes this ultimatum, leaves the country with his sons, will U.S. troops, nevertheless, enter Iraq?

FLEISCHER: The president addressed that last night. The president made clear that Saddam Hussein had 48 hours to leave, beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time last night. The president also made plain to the American people that if Saddam were to leave, the American forces, coalition forces would still enter Iraq, hopefully this time peacefully because Iraqi military would not be under orders to attack or fire back, and that way Iraq could be disarmed from the possession of weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: So the bottom line is Americans are going to occupy Iraq no matter what at this point?

FLEISCHER: The bottom line is a coalition of the willing will disarm Saddam Hussein's Iraq no matter what.

QUESTION: Fair enough. And then up in the north, will the United States allow Turkish troops to push deeper into Iraq than they are positioned now along the buffer zone, along the border? FLEISCHER: Our position on this, and this has been made clear to the government of Turkey, is that no outside forces, other than those under coalition command, should enter Iraq.

QUESTION: And then finally on the Daschle thing, are you saying that because Senator Daschle criticized the president's diplomacy that's inconsistent with the principle of not politicizing the war, and that, therefore, from that podium speaking on behalf of the commander-in-chief during wartime, that that shouldn't be done?

FLEISCHER: Speaking from this podium, I received a question about statements made by a member of Congress. And as I said, every member of Congress is entitled to state what they think no matter what they think. That is their right and they are entitled to it and always will be entitled to it.

I merely point out, you can compare this statement with previous statements made and draw your own inferences about whether those statements are consistent or not. I say, when you look at what he's previously said, his statements are not consistent.

QUESTION: But you don't want to discourage dissent in this country at all...

FLEISCHER: It's every person's right to dissent and nothing has been suggested here that would ever say that people don't have that right. I have not said that here.

QUESTION: Ari, could you give us a little more on the expulsion of people with ties to Iraqi intelligence that the president alluded to last night or discussed? How many might be involved?

QUESTION: Were there specific activities they were...

FLEISCHER: I don't have the specific numbers. You might want to talk to the FBI or the State Department about that.

But we have worked with allied nations about the potential threats that Iraqi so-called diplomats might present because of concerns that they're not diplomats, they actually are working in intelligence fields. And the United States has taken actions within our rights. Other nations have taken similar actions.

I believe the first nation to take such action, if you recall, was several weeks ago when the Philippines threw out an Iraqi -- high- ranking Iraqi diplomat after a terrorist attack in the Philippines where evidence was right away traced back to the Iraqi Embassy.

QUESTION: So were there people in the United States who have been expelled as part of this?

FLEISCHER: There were. And the State Department has the details on that. If I recall, this was made public. It was officials up in New York.

QUESTION: Secondly, are there any signs North Korea is using this current crisis or situation to accelerate its nuclear program further, restarting the plutonium plant?

FLEISCHER: Well, North Korea has, since the late '90s, engaged in a program to develop its nuclear weapons contrary to all the agreements that they entered into in a bilateral agreement with the United States. It didn't take anything in Iraq for North Korea to violate its word and produce nuclear weapons. North Korea has continued its attempts to manufacture more nuclear weapons. But we continue to monitor the situation with North Korea. I can't say that I can report to you they've accelerated.

QUESTION: Ari, just to follow up on something in the gaggle this morning, Saddam Hussein has defied the ultimatum. And a Pentagon official said last night that the president's statement, speech, was worded so that if Saddam Hussein did defy the ultimatum, there was the option of starting military force at any time before the 48 hours is up.

Would you agree with that? Is that how you see it, that military action could now start at any time, because Saddam Hussein has defied the ultimatum and said he's not leaving?

FLEISCHER: Let me make two points.

One, Saddam Hussein has led Iraq to many mistakes in the past, principally by developing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, if he doesn't leave the country, will make his final mistake. The president continues to hope he will.

On the question of timing, anything involving timing I will refer to the Pentagon as a matter of White House procedure, as you're very familiar with. I've explained this to many people individually. I've said it collectively in the off-the-camera session this morning. The same policy that was in effect in 1991 will be in effect at the White House this year. And that is, all operational details, including questions of timing, et cetera, will be matters for the Pentagon to talk about.

QUESTION: So you're leaving it open? You're not ruling it out?

FLEISCHER: I'm leaving it for the Pentagon to discuss. I remind you, the president's words in his speech was, "a time of our choosing." That's how the president expressed it. He also talked about 48 hours for Saddam Hussein to leave the country to avoid military conflict.

QUESTION: If Saddam Hussein goes into exile, will the U.S. seek to have him prosecuted for war crimes?

FLEISCHER: That would be a question for the international community to consider. We hope that that will become an option that can be considered.

QUESTION: And Secretary Powell said today that there is roughly 30 countries in the coalition of the willing.

QUESTION: That leaves roughly 160 United Nations members in the coalition of the unwilling. Why is that?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, that's, I don't think, a fair characterization of other nations, to say that they're in a coalition of the unwilling. Not every nation has the ability to contribute. Not every nation is in an area that is geographically advantageous concerning military operations or overflight or basing. So I think it depends significantly on the ability of these nations to contribute to a coalition.

But I don't think you can accurately say that. If you were to take a look at -- by that standard, then you'd be able to make the same conclusions about many previous wars, including the first Persian Gulf War, say that the world was against it by that standard.

QUESTION: So does the United States have most of the members it wants, or all of the members it wants?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the United States, as the president said, would act with a rather robust and significant sized coalition of the willing by any measurement.

QUESTION: Ari, to follow-up on Elizabeth's (ph) question. Is it still the administration's position that Saddam Hussein has until Wednesday 8:00 evening Eastern Standard Time to leave his country? And is there any indications that that window will be open until that point?

FLEISCHER: I can only repeat to you what the president said, and that is that Saddam Hussein has 48 hours -- he made those remarks at 8:00 last night -- to leave the country to avoid military conflict.

QUESTION: And how will you validate or confirm whether or not he has actually done so? I mean, who are you talking (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I think that it is not a matter of any doubt if Saddam Hussein were to leave the country. I think everybody would know, and everybody would know rather quickly.

QUESTION: And your reaction to the French ambassador's statements to CNN this morning. He was saying that if Saddam Hussein were to use chemical and biological weapons, this would change the situation completely and immediately for the French government, suggesting that the French military could assist the U.S.-led coalition. Is this a sign perhaps of a change in point of view? FLEISCHER: One, I thought it was a notable statement. Two, let us hope it never has to come to pass.

QUESTION: Ari, when you say notable statement, do you mean you'd welcome their help?

FLEISCHER: I just make note that it is a notable statement for France to say such a thing.


FLEISCHER: I also said that let us hope that never comes to pass, because it is premised on our troops being hit with chemical or biological weapons.

QUESTION: But you'd accept their help?

FLEISCHER: I just said it's a notable statement. I have not had an opportunity to have it fully studied by the United States government.

QUESTION: Ari, more generally, we have not seen the president in any kind of informal setting for a while now, other than (OFF-MIKE) yesterday. Could you describe to us the president's mood, what he may be doing to keep focused, and the general White House mood?

FLEISCHER: Well, I was with the president before he made the speech last night and afterwards. And I think the president is very, very focused. The president, having worked on this issue for such a considerable period of time, pursued the diplomacy with the diligence and the importance that the diplomacy deserved, believes now and is comfortable now with the fact that the moment of truth has come.

And the president believes in his heart that to preserve peace around the world, Saddam Hussein must be disarmed. And he is comfortable with the action that is pending and is confident that it will achieve its goal.

He's, I think, rather serious these days about that, focused and determined to achieve that mission. And he's comfortable with it.

QUESTION: Ari, what is the number of countries that you believe are willing to participate in the coalition of the willing?

QUESTION: Is it 30? And how do you define participation in the coalition?

FLEISCHER: Well, we have all along said, in terms of actual active combat, there will be very, very few countries. In terms of providing the necessary means of basing or overflight -- which after all is how combat would ensue, you can't have combat if you don't have supplies, you can't have combat if you don't have overflight -- it'll be a rather large number, and Secretary Powell has discussed that today.

QUESTION: And 30 is the number that...

FLEISCHER: That's the number the secretary said.

QUESTION: And the number that the White House obviously believes is accurate?

FLEISCHER: That's correct. That's the number.

QUESTION: There were remarks this morning from Mr. Aldouri, as well, at the United Nations in which he said that if there is a war, how can you have a safe place in the war; and if you're the invader, how can you ask for a safe place for you? What does the administration make of that?

FLEISCHER: Say that statement again.

QUESTION: He says: If you are the invader, if you are the invader, how can you ask for a safe place for you?

FLEISCHER: Who does "you" apply to?

QUESTION: The United States.

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure I really understand what the point is, other than -- the only I can -- I interpret that statement to be, if the United States uses military force, the president is, of course, very comfortable and confident that we will be successful in achieving our objectives. He made no prediction about the length of time. I've seen many people say that this could be relatively quick. We make no such assumptions. But the president is confident in the outcome.

QUESTION: One other thing, if I may? When the president speaks next, do you anticipate that it would be before any hostilities, would it be at the end of this 48-hour period? What should we expect... FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about that. We, of course, will keep you advised. And if we have something, we'll share it.

QUESTION: Back on the coalition of the willing. The fact that there are so few countries that are actually going to put their soldiers, their troops on the line in the military action, is that by design or because the U.S. could not attract more players to that part of the action?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to get into any of these details until it is revealed and you have the information in front of you about what countries are doing exactly what. And then, I think you'll be able to make more informed judgments about it.

The fact of the matter is the overwhelming amount of combat will be provided by a relatively small number of countries and that is sufficient to accomplish the mission. And other nations are free to contribute as they see fit.

QUESTION: But was that by design?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's a reflection of the diplomacy. I think it's a reflection of the ability of different nations to contribute. And I think it's also a reflection of how much is needed to accomplish the mission.

QUESTION: Is the president, today, trying to grow the coalition of the willing? Can you tell us a little bit about really what is he doing today? This morning you said he's going over war plans. But is he also, you know, trying to get more nations to come on board and participate?

FLEISCHER: You know, I think there could be some movement to the various degrees. The secretary also talked about nations that are contributing, but don't want to be publicly named. And so there -- back to Jim's question -- there could be room for, you know, some imprecision on the exact number of different nations see fit. But I think that the parameters of it are basically set. And the president, as I indicated, spent his day on the phone calls with some of the foreign leaders.

In meetings, he has domestic meetings today, as well. He's meeting with other members of his Cabinet. And so, he's pursuing a variety of items today.

QUESTION: What are the domestic topics that he might discuss?

FLEISCHER: He's meeting -- he has, since the very beginning of the administration, since January 20, 2001, had periodic meetings with Cabinet secretaries. He's had more frequent meetings, of course, with Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld. But he has periodic meetings with the Cabinet secretaries. And those meetings have been taking place for the last week or so and will continue to take place.

FLEISCHER: Those are private meetings with individual members of the Cabinet to go through all the items on their agenda and to talk to him about their top issues.

So there are those meetings. And there are also domestic policy briefings about legislation pending on the Hill and upcoming congressional action on domestic matters.

QUESTION: Is that the tax bill? Is he doing to talk about -- is he having meetings on the tax bill...

FLEISCHER: These are private domestic policy briefings. We don't indicate the topics of his private briefings.

QUESTION: Two questions. One on the 48-hour deadline. Is it the president's policy that regardless of what statements have come out of Iraq today that Saddam has the full 48 hours to think it over, perhaps change his mind and exercise the option the president offered?

FLEISCHER: The statement spoke for itself. I'm not going to say anything different from the statement. The statement spoke for itself. Saddam knows what he needs to do.

QUESTION: Well, your answer to Suzanne's (ph) question suggested that that's the case; that the president would give him the full 48 hours to perhaps change his mind and rethink the matter. Is that correct?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to change what the president said. The president said he has 48 hours to depart to avoid military conflict. That stands.

QUESTION: Regarding Senator Daschle's comments, what, in your view, is precisely the inconsistency between Senator Daschle's statement last year that he shouldn't politicize this and his statement yesterday that the president had failed diplomatically? What's the inconsistency?

FLEISCHER: Well, I would refer you -- and I made this about several statements when I said inconsistency -- I would refer you to statements made on February 12, 1998, in the Congressional Record; statements made on February 5, 1998, that was reported in the Chicago Tribune that all deals with the inevitability of the use of force against Saddam Hussein; as well as a statement on September 25, 2002, in the Congressional Record about not politicizing the rhetoric and rising to a higher level. QUESTION: Well, I understand what you're saying is inconsistent between the first statement you read and what he said yesterday, but are you saying that there's an inconsistency between the second and what he said yesterday...

FLEISCHER: I said it's inconsistent and...

QUESTION: Well, in what ways what he said yesterday politicizing the rhetoric...

FLEISCHER: Because I don't find it consistent.

QUESTION: How? The question...


QUESTION: Ari, the president today is obviously reaching out to President Putin to try to put differences behind them. Is he making any similar type of effort with France and Germany?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, Secretary Powell spoke with Foreign Minister Fischer and Foreign Minister de Villepin yesterday morning and we'll keep you filled in on the president's conversations and calls.

At the end of the day, it's always important, and the president will note this, that we are allies, that we share common values and that we work together on many issues. I have not been shy about saying to everybody here, even in the thick of the disagreement with France, that France has been a good partner in the war against terrorism. They have shared information, they have been helpful in the war against terrorism. On this issue, we see it very much the opposite and the president regrets that.

QUESTION: Back on the supplemental, what is the length that there will be Israeli aid also in that package? And just for point of clarification, you're saying that we should expect the supplemental to go up to the Hill after the war has begun. Is that correct?

QUESTION: That's correct on the second part.

I'm not going to speculate about what may or may not be in at the appropriate time. Israel is a longtime ally and partner of the United States. We have strategic interest with Israel. And I'm not going to speculate beyond that.

QUESTION: On the orange alert. As you know, Ari, we had a pro- war protester down on the mall for almost 24 hours. He disrupted two rush-hour travel sequences. My question is, is the White House confident that Washington does have adequate escape plans if there is a reason to get out of town? FLEISCHER: Well, I really don't see the connection between the incident on the mall and an escape plan.

QUESTION: We had traffic blocked and...


QUESTION: ... between Virginia and Washington was blocked during two key rush-hour periods by a single person. So the connection I'm trying to make is, if we have -- you know, thank God, this was a disruption of commerce, but if we have a threat to human life, are you convinced that, you know, based on what...

FLEISCHER: I think the president believes that every step has been taken, is being taken and continues to be taken to constantly improve on all efforts to provide for homeland security.

FLEISCHER: Clearly, depending on the type of incident, the type of terrorist attack, if there were one, to be involved, judgments would be made about what plans to put into place and what actions to take. I can't speak about every hypothetical and I can't speak about all instances involving traffic.

But clearly the nation has improved its efforts since September 11. And I think, suffice it to say, as we enter into what may be a considerable period of time in dealing with terrorism, improvements will constantly be made. They'll always be looked at. And this is an endeavor that will go on.

QUESTION: You mentioned that the president was going over some domestic policy issues this afternoon, (inaudible) and so forth. One of those is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Can you tell us what are the plans, the administration's plans for that, if and when war begins, how much released, when, timing?

FLEISCHER: The policy on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is that the reserve would be released in the event of an emergency such as a severe disruption of supply. So at this moment, it's impossible to anticipate, predict whether or not there would be a severe disruption of supply. Those determinations would be made by the experts based on the circumstances on the ground in terms of what the supply conditions look like.

QUESTION: Who would make that decision?

FLEISCHER: It's a combination of people led by the Department of Energy in consultation with others.

QUESTION: Forgive my skepticism, did I just hear you say the president continues to hope Saddam Hussein will accept his ultimatum?

FLEISCHER: Of course he hopes.

QUESTION: Is there a single person in this building who believes he will? FLEISCHER: I didn't say the president believed he will, but of course he continues to hope. The president continues to hope. And he knows that the chances are slim that Saddam Hussein will leave. But of course, I think everybody hopes that this can be done peacefully. It may not. And the president has said that the mission would be to disarm Saddam Hussein. And that's what has brought the world to this point, because Saddam Hussein has not disarmed. QUESTION: He is certainly proceeding on the assumption that this is not going to happen?

FLEISCHER: That's a safe assumption. That's correct.

QUESTION: Ari, two quick questions. I hope you have seen the editorial?

FLEISCHER: I did. You gave me a copy of it.

QUESTION: The question is...

FLEISCHER: Not that I'm not a subscriber, but you did drop a copy on my desk.


QUESTION: My question is that since president has given an option and choice for Saddam Hussein to leave the country by tomorrow night, that means we are not interested to capturing him? And how about the crimes he has committed against his own people? So we will never know about them and he will never be brought to justice.

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president has said that he hopes Saddam Hussein will leave. And he has given him that period of time in which to do so. The president also talked about war crimes and not following orders. That was a very important message and a message that was shared with the people of Iraq. If it goes to war, we hope that will have some effect.

QUESTION: Second question, (INAUDIBLE) any advice for a small investor or for a small businessman or for somebody like me, I'm traveling to South Asia next month, what would be the advice from the president?

FLEISCHER: On your investments?

QUESTION: No, for the people here, the stock market or the businessmen or a traveler?

FLEISCHER: I have no advice to offer investors. That's not my place. It's not my job.

QUESTION: Ari, can you give us any ticktock on the formulation of the president's speech yesterday, especially any deliberations about whether to include a firm deadline of 48 hours?

FLEISCHER: You know, yesterday I got repeated phone calls from the press saying they heard there was no deadline in there, and it had always been in there. Obviously somebody who may not have wanted it in there was talking to the press and saying there isn't. So I can't explain that. But in the drafts, early drafts that I saw, it was in there and it remained in there.

QUESTION: Somewhat related, the NCAA is talking about delaying its playoffs. I realize you don't set the schedule of sporting events, but can you tell us in a broader sense how much Americans can expect to get on with their normal lives as we brace for war?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president hopes that people will continue with their normal lives.

FLEISCHER: And that's one of the reasons that the Department of Homeland Security was created and the alert codes were created.

The alert codes have a series of actions that are taken as the alert rises or falls, and these are determined by the basis of the threat, any specific information. And Secretary Ridge addressed similar issues today.

Part of the planning is if in the event people come to the conclusion that events have to be canceled, that would be made known. That has not been made known by the Department of Homeland Security. That's not a recommendation they have made.

But the Department of Homeland Security will work with all organizations across the country as they talk about what steps to take. That's one of the reasons they're there, is to do outreach, particularly for major events.

QUESTION: Does the president have or is intending to, or Dr. Rice, any plans to talk to Israel in a diplomatic way about the issue of non-response if they're hit, not coming into the war if we go to war?

FLEISCHER: Well, we have and we will continue to consult with Israel. Of course, Israel has the right to defend itself, and we will continue to consult with Israel as they exercise their rights.

QUESTION: How long does the president think the American people should expect this conflict to last? Is it days not weeks, weeks not months?

How long should the American people be prepared to support this conflict?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, the hope is that it would be short. The hope is it won't be long. But I'm not prepared to make any predictions about that. I'm not in a position where I can give you any type of certainty about it.

I think people have to prepare for the fact that it may not be short. It's just impossible to state, and I'm not going to go beyond it and put any type of time frame on it.

QUESTION: I have a question, then may I yield to my senior correspondent? But my question is, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has said that, unlike 12 years ago, if Israel should be attacked by Iraqi Scuds or by Iraq in some other form, that Israel will retaliate, and there are some international experts who feel that that's quite precarious and it could escalate any war in the Middle East, bringing in other Arab nations.

Has the president decided or has he tried to contact Sharon to dissuade him from retaliating...

FLEISCHER: Well, that was the question I just got asked, and the answer is the same. We have consulted and we will continue to consult with Israel.

QUESTION: Beyond consulting, I mean, has he specifically asked Sharon not to retaliate if attacked?

FLEISCHER: As I've indicated, we will continue to consult with Israel. Israel has the right to defend itself and we'll consult with them as they exercise their rights.

QUESTION: Without mentioning any names of anybody on the Hill, I'd like to know if you could define what politicizing the debate, politicizing the rhetoric over this, what constitutes that in the eyes of the White House?

FLEISCHER: Again, I've made my ...

QUESTION: Is criticism considered politicizing?

FLEISCHER: I don't think there's anything surprising in what I said. There was a strong statement made by a member of Congress. It was in his rights to say whatever he would like to say. And I pointed out what I view as inconsistencies.

QUESTION: Inconsistencies, Daschle aside, what constitutes politicizing the debate...

FLEISCHER: You know, I think the public...

QUESTION: ... that's going to unfold about what's going to unfold in the military...

FLEISCHER: I think the public will judge that. I think that's the right of the public to make those judgments. My position, it's my place to say everybody has a right to say whatever is on their mind.

People have a right to criticize, people have a right to praise, people have a right to oppose, people have a right to support. I can point out inconsistencies, and then others can explain and others can come to their own judgments.

I've said what I intend to say on it.

QUESTION: Mr. Fleischer, your forces are using unlimited the Greek air space, the Greek ports, the Greek seas, the Greek base, particularly the island of Crete, and a number of other facilities for your war against Saddam Hussein.

The permission was granted by Simitis government without prior approval of the Greek parliament.

My question is, are you using the position to protect the security and the territorial integrity of Greece under these circumstances, since there is a real threat now with your presence for terrorist attack as it was (inaudible) yesterday by president to the war message?

FLEISCHER: Greece, of course, is an ally of the United States, and I don't deal with hypotheticals, but, of course, Greece is an ally entitled to rights as an ally of the United States. I'd just leave it at that. I'm not aware of the threat.

QUESTION: I know you said you respect the free speech of members of Congress, but during the duration of any hostilities of any war, would you expect them to limit some of their criticism?

FLEISCHER: Listen, I think these are judgments that constituencies need to make. Every member of Congress represents a constituency, and they have to make their own judgments about what to...

BLITZER: We're going to continue to monitor Ari Fleischer's question-and-answer session with reporters, get back there once there's some further developments. We'll make sure that we don't miss anything important. Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary saying very bluntly that if Saddam Hussein doesn't leave Iraq, doesn't leave Iraq within this 48-hour window that President Bush offered him yesterday, "Saddam will make his final mistake," a direct quote from Ari Fleischer -- "Saddam will have made his final mistake." Ari Fleischer also expressing confidence that the U.S. relationship with other allies, including France and Germany, will indeed bounce back after this war gets under way.


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